Lt. Col. Honeyman's Account of 1st Black Watch Withdrawal from St. Valery
24th May to 13th June 1940
Lieutenant Colonel G.E.B. Honeyman
DSO, Croix de Guerre
This account of the withdrawal of the 51st Highland Division from the Somme to St. Valéry was written by Lieutenant Colonel GEB Honeyman and is in the archives of the Black Watch Museum. It tells the story of the withdrawal of 1st Battalion The Black Watch which he commanded. His service record is as follows:
Honeyman, George Eric Ballingall DSO, Croix de Guerre.
2nd Lieutenant 27 October 1916
Lieutenant 27 April 1918
Captain 18 May 1930
Adjutant 1 January 1933
Brigade Major 153 (Black Watch & Gordons)
Infantry Brigade 23 December 1937
Major 1 August 1938
T/Lt.Col Commanding 1st Battalion The Black Watch 29 April 1940
Retired as Honorary Lieutenant Colonel 26 October 1947
Died at Gatehouse of Fleet 15 November 1962
An Account of the withdrawal to St. Valéry
1st Battalion The Black Watch, By Lieutenant Colonel Honeyman
We left the Verdun area, entraining at midnight 24/25, after a long march to the station. Awful delay as the train had not been prepared for end-loading of M.T. Frantic efforts made to load cooks lorries etc. sideways from the platform were eventually abandoned and end-loading had to be undertaken. Meanwhile a German recce plane came over very low. Our train and one waiting 2 Seaforths, by now on platform, must have been quite obvious. Eventually pulled out as dawn was breaking on 25th.
A Ech, tpt. had gone by road under Major W.F. Dundas. Our destination was unknown but surmised ROUEN area correctly.
Two blissful uneventful days in train, moving well south of PARIS. Did everyone good as gave us much needed rest. The chief difficulty was feeding the men as length of stops for cooking was always uncertain. The officers mess staff over-came the difficulty by knocking in a panel to their compartment next door through which an arm would appear with a plate of food, or a whisky and water, on request. Detrained at NEUF CHATEL early morning 27th. No transport to take us forward as expected, so had to march. The town in flames in places and glad to get Bn clear of more bombing.
Night 27/28 May in bivouac on River BRESLE. On 29th Bn was under command of a French Brigade. Rest of 154. Inf. Bde not yet reached area. Tpt had joined us after an eventful and tiring journey across France. This evening Bn moved North across River BRESLE and ordered to relieve French troops of Bde Legere Motorisee, about 20 kms forward towards ABBEVILLE.
My chief impression of this manoeuvre was of going forward in the dark with Major Dundas and our French Liaison Officer to high ground above the village of TOEUFFLES to meet the Commander of the Unit we were to relieve. French troops huddled about everywhere and very jittery. We were lucky not to have been shot at. Found eventually that they had vacated their positions on the high ground overlooking the plain to A.BBEVILLE long before the Bn could possibly arrive and, at one period, we had no protection in front of us at all. These French troops, in fairness, had had a bad hammering all the way from Belgium. However we occupied our positions as best we could at first light without mishap.
30th May Bn was ordered (by French) to provide one Coy to take part at 2 hrs notice in an attack on German Bridgehead S.W. of ABBEVILLE. No time for recce and hardly sufficient to get B Coy to start line. B Coy took objective (part of GRANDE BOIS) successfully, but attack as a whole failed and Coy was withdrawn. Luckily only slight casualties. After this, rest of 51 Div had come up and we were very glad to be put under 153 Bde.
1st - 2nd June. Bn was stretched out from MIANNY, just South of River SOMME, to TOEUFFLES (about 6 Ks.) facing N.E. Country very wooded and difficult. A good deal of German bombing. Bn H.Q. at ACHEUX.
Night 2/3 June Bn moved 15-20 Ks West towards EU to 154 Bde. By this time the inhabitants had all fled. Horses, Pigs, Cows etc. were plentiful and cellars were well stocked. All orchards in blossom and countryside beautiful. Weather very hot. I remember Sgt. Mathewson, the Provost Sgt, arriving in a village driving a dray with a pair of lovely big chestnut Percherons. He remarked that the owner had asked him to take care of them! I suppose that was also meant to apply to the casks in the dray! Dozens of cows in fields lowing piteously for someone to relieve them of milk. By this time we hoped for 24 hours rest, but not at all. That same afternoon, the 3rd, we were ordered to march back to 153 Bde and to relieve 1 Gordons (on ground just vacated) in anticipation of attack by 51 Div and French Troops on 4th.
From that time onwards the Bn remained in 153 Int. Bde and 4 Black Watch went into Div Reserve and then took our place in 154 Bde, which explains why ourselves and 1 Gordons (two Regular Bns) were captured with 153 Bde at St.Valery.
4th June was the attack on Gerrnan Bridgehead by whole of 51 Div and French Troops. Bn was in support of 1 Gordons attacking GRANDE BOIS, but as attack on right of Div and French Fronts was not successful, the Bn was not required.
On 5th June the German attack opened and from then on till 12th June was one series of withdrawals by night over unknown or across-country roads to positions often with inadequate time for reconnaissance, and an endeavor to stem the tide and get some rest by day.
The weather was very hot with short nights, usually leaving us very little time in which to do the distance in darkness. All movement was done on foot except on last move back to ST.VALERY on night of 10/11 June when we jettisoned everything except arms and, with Bn vehicles and some R.A.S.C. lorries, the Bn was all on wheels.
Never was there time for any written orders, and it was a case, usually, for hurried verbal orders at dusk for the move back as soon as it got dark (about 22.00 hrs) and, as we only had [quarter inch] maps, it was no mean achievement that no sub-units ever got lost (till night 11/12). What struck us forcibly was that every night at 21.30 hrs all enemy ground activity stopped. On many occasions it was most fortunate that shelling on roads etc. ceased just before we commenced withdrawal, and difficult to understand. Nor was there any German patrolling, as far as we experienced, after dark. The truth was that the German advantage in men, material and mobility was so preponderating that he could keep us moving and yet afford to rest his troops by night.
The rearguard action went on from evening of 5th to capitulation at ST. VALERY on morning of 12th.
Each night we broke off the action and withdrew about 20 kms behind a water obstacle. These moves were governed by the distances which the French Troops on right of 51 Div were able to cover on foot, and with horse drawn tpt.
Usually, after a quiet morning, enabling us to make dispositions and get a little rest, the Germans caught up with us in the early afternoon, and there was a good deal of shelling and considerable infantry pressure, though no attacks were seriously pushed home on the Bn front. This continued till dark when, owing to infiltration elsewhere, we had to conform with the general withdrawal.
By 10th all ranks were very tired and short of sleep. We rarely saw any British Planes whereas German machines were overhead all day. On night of 10/11 June the Bn moved back, all on wheels, to St. PIERRE-le-VIGER, about 15 kms South of ST. VALERY to positions on the outer perimeter.
The country on the area allotted was very open and provided little cover from air. However, by noon on 11th C.O. had got Bde sanction to incorporate in our sector a large wooded locality, 1000 yds on our right to which he moved H.Q.Coy, C and D Coys, and all tpt. From here the front of A and B Coys could also be covered by fire. Bn H.Q. remained in the rear of A and B Coys in an orchard, which, to our annoyance, was soon full of French Cavalry and concealment from air was virtually impossible.
On Bn left were 5th Gordons. On Bn right was a detachment of Chasseurs Alpin. Meanwhile a continuous stream of French troops and vehicles passed all morning down the road between ourselves and 5 Gordons leading towards the sea.
By now water and food were very short and so was ammunition. The best possible dispositions were made on what was a very unsatisfactory defensive position, and less so when our cavalry screen withdrew behind us.
However, we felt that if we could stave off any attacks that afternoon and evening, we might have a chance to withdraw to ST.VALERY that night (as was the intention) for embarkation.
One tp. of 25 pdrs. was in support of Bn (0.P. with H.Q, Coy.) and our one remaining M. G. of Kensington Rifles was also with H. Q. Coy.
At 17.00 hrs C.O. was called to a conference at Bde H. Q. at BLOSSEVILLE and on returning by the route he had gone was unable, because of enemy tank action, to get back to Bn H.Q. He got across country to the locality in which were H.Q. C and D Coys to find about 19.30 hrs an attack, supported by tanks, being made on A and B Coy front WEST of ST. PIERRE-le-VIGER. This was warded off after these Coys had suffered considerable casualties and, shortly afterwards, an attack was directed at H.Q. C and D Coys.. With the fire of our supporting artillery, one M.G. and L.As., this too was defeated but, as darkness was falling, enemy infiltration occurred up a scrub-filled re-entrant between the two localities occupied by the Bn and communications were severed.
Overnight orders were received by 5 Gordons on Bn left to withdraw to ST.VALERY and assuming, correctly, that these orders also applied to the Bn Major G.F. Milne withdrew A Coy (Capt D.H.Walker), B Coy (his own), where they were met early next morning by Major Dundas who had been ordered back about 14.00 hrs on the 11th to reconnoiter, a position at GUTTERVILLE on a shorter perimeter round ST.VALERY.. These two Coys under Major Dundas played a distinguished part in the final defence of ST.VALERY, after embarkation was impossible until ordered to capitulate about 0930 hrs on the 12th.
No orders reached the C.O. with H.Q, C and D Coys which, therefore, remained in the locality west of ST.PIERRE-le-VIGER. In this locality were also a detachment of Chasseurs Alpins. H.Q. Coy was commanded by Major O.G.H. Russell, C. Coy by Captain A. Grant-Duff and D Coy by Lieut Howie (after Captain G.P. Campbell-Preston was wounded on 10th).
The Germans attack opened at 0700 hrs after a night of rain, with heavy shelling and mortar fire. Our F.O.O. reported the line to the guns broken (the guns had, unknown to us, been destroyed). Gradually tanks encircled the locality and infantry infiltration progressed. This portion of the Bn suffered severe casualties and eventually even small arms ammunition ran out. We had no A/T guns and Lieut. Alastair Telfer-Smollett was killed in a gallant effort to bring UJ.J the guns of the M/r Platoon. About 1100 hrs Capt A. Grant Duff was killed at the head of his Coy leading it from one position to another in an endeavour to beat off the German attack.
About 1200 hrs the Chasseurs Alpins forestalled the C.O. by deciding to capitulate though, in fact, further resistance was only causing needless loss of life, and food, water, and ammunition were all exhausted. Withdrawal across open country was out of the question and gallant efforts of the Carrier Platoon under- Lieut. Irwin to evacuate casualties met with no success. German tanks were all around us.
It was not until, as prisoners, about 1500 hrs, these Coys joined the rest of the Division and heard of the general capitulation.
Casualties in these two days were estimated at about 50 killed and 200 wounded.
Signed - Lieutenant Colonel Honeyman